Complex Characters and the Power of Contradiction


You’ve likely seen countless posts and resources related to creating great characters, but almost all of them seem to be lacking in one aspect I’ve found to be perhaps the most powerful: giving your characters contradictions.

Some might read this and say, “Huh? Isn’t that inconsistent characterization? Or undefined characterization?”

The contradictions I’m talking about aren’t continuity errors or mistakes. They can relate to internal conflicts, but they are not internal conflicts. If you don’t like the term “contradiction,” many of the things I’m about to talk about also work as “contrasts.”

When writers are given methods to create characters, the approaches often include giving the character strengths and weaknesses, likeable attributes, a unique appearance, and a nice backstory, or a secret or fear. These are all wonderful and useful things. But how do you make your character more complex? More interesting?

The answer lies in giving them some sort of contradiction. Let’s look at some examples of characters and the contradiction or contrasts surrounding them.

Harry Potter: the most famous and (rumored to be) most powerful wizard in the wizarding world, and he lives in the cupboard under the stairs at his abusive aunt and uncle’s.

Frodo from Lord of the Rings: the most unskilled, unqualified, and harmless person who is the only one capable of taking the evilest magical object, the Ring, through the darkest lands to be destroyed

Blu from Rio: a bird who doesn’t know how to fly

Simba (adult) from The Lion King: the king of the lions no longer wants to be king and is charged with killing his beloved father.

Finnick Odair from The Hunger Games: long pampered and adored as society’s playboy and sex symbol, Finnick yearns for loyal monogamy and shares a pure love for Annie that is unrivaled. Though he could have any woman in the country, he falls for a mentally disabled girl that he’s forbidden from marrying so the antagonist can continue to use him as a high society prostitute.

Edward Cullen from Twilight: Love or hate Twilight, Edward is a great example of a walking contradiction. A vampire who falls in love with a human who has the most potent blood he’s ever encountered.

Murph from Interstellar: A girl who hates her father for leaving her must call upon her love for him to save a dying earth.

Giving your character some sort of contradiction or contrast immediately makes them more interesting. We wonder how they can be that way. We wonder how they live their life. The reasoning and space between the contradiction is where the character gets complex. Harry doesn’t like being abused at his aunt and uncle’s, but he doesn’t like the lavish attention he receives from overcoming Voldemort either.

The contradiction can lead to a character arc. Blu in Rio has never been able to fly, but he has to overcome that weakness in the movie. The arc is more interesting because Blu embodies his contradiction. It’s more interesting than perhaps a non-contradictory arc would be.

The contradiction can be simply a question of lifestyle (How can the biggest, richest playboy of Panem want a monogamous relationship with mentally disabled woman?). Or it could be a contradiction in identity (How does a lion prince who spends an entire song dreaming of becoming king turn to loathing the idea? While being haunted with the fear that he killed his beloved father? Who is he? Where does he fit and belong?). Anyone who has seen The Lion King knows that it deals largely with identity.

The space between these contradictions—where they meet, are explored, and explained— is where your character becomes complex. The fact that Harry has to deal with being hated in one world and being loved in the other (and likes neither) makes him more complex. Frodo being one of the least experienced characters in Lord of the Rings but the only one capable of carrying the ring makes him complex. While media portrays Finnick as having a slew of lovers, the only love of his life is an unusual girl he’s willing to die for to protect. That makes him complex. And all this complexity gives the character depth.

One point worth mentioning: the more outlandish and center-stage the contradiction, the more exploring and explaining it likely needs. The goal is to create depth, not caricatures.

Sometimes these contradictions lead to on-page internal conflict. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they play into the character arc. Sometimes they don’t. The point is this: the quickest way to make a character complex is to give them some kind of contradiction.

september-c-fawkes_3Sometimes September scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. She works as an assistant to a New York Times bestselling author while penning her own stories, holds an English degree, and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. Find out more about September here, hang with her on social media, or visit her website to follow her writing journey and get more writing tips.

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11 Responses to Complex Characters and the Power of Contradiction

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  4. Michael Offner says:

    There’s a character I’ve been working on who’s pretty much all about their contradiction – she has a burning desire to become a warrior hero, yet due to a birth defect she can’t build enough muscle to wield a greatsword or wear plate armor. Her innate never-give-up attitude and the emotional wound of her disability have led to her believing two contradictory false truths: “I’m not allowed to stop trying” and “Even if I give it everything I have, I’ll never be good enough.”
    I’m kinda new to storytelling, but hope it’s an interesting contradiction. ^^’

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  6. Natalie Shannon says:

    I love this article! I go nuts when I see contradictions in characters. Especially on the TV show and comic “The walking Dead.” There are two villains on the show that drive me crazy. One is the Governor: he was an evil man who kept heads in a fish tank and abused women. But you get him around a child and he hugs and protects her. I just scream “You’re supposed to be evil and you turn to mush around a child!”

    Then there is Negan. He bashes peoples heads in with a baseball bat and other violent acts. He has women he calls wives, if his wives “cheat” on him with their ex loves, he burns the man’s face with an iron. Buy yet he hates rape! He kills a man when he sees him trying to rape a woman. He says rape is against the rules. Seriously? I don’t know to call Negan complex or a hypocrite!

    Then when he goes to where Rick lives, he guts a person, then he makes a kid spaghetti and when he sees a little girl he will sit there and cuddle with her. I don’t get him at all! Sorry for the rant, but as a writer I am going crazy trying to follow character arcs. What do you guys think? Do you watch the Walking Dead and what do you think of Negan and The Governor?

    • Hi Natalie,

      I haven’t seen Walking Dead, but I think I know what you are talking about. Even though I love the power of contradiction in characters, the more extreme the contradictions, the more of an explanation I (personally) seem to need. Not all writers feel that way though. It sounds like the Walking Dead writers are playing with the contradictions, but not spending a lot of time explaining those contradictions. That sometimes drives me crazy too! Which is why I added this line, “the more outlandish and center-stage the contradiction, the more exploring and explaining it likely needs.” It helps me go a little less crazy!

  7. Kessie says:

    I love this! In my paranormal romance Malevolent, my hero is a walking talking contradiction. He’s a soulless lich who can only feel negative emotions like anger and hate. Yet he’s the most caring, gentle person because of the bees he keeps and the qualities of their magic honey. The heroine falls for the gentle side of him, and then has to cope with the monster side. It’s so fun.

    I also think of Rurouni Kenshin, the anime about the legendary warrior. Except he’s really just a guy trying to live a quiet life … but he also has Awesome Fighting Skills when pressed. 😀

  8. I love this tip, September. One of my favorite (seeming) contradictions currently is the main character in the movie Hacksaw Ridge. He wants to stop Hitler and his evil, so he enlists. But he has a personal conviction to not kill—to never actually touch a gun. The pairing is one that makes it virtually impossible for him to achieve his goal, because how can you get through basic training without picking up a rifle? But the conviction comes out of his backstory, as you see early on. So even though it seems contradictory, it all makes sense.

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